ARLINGTON, Va. — When the commander of the U.S. Navy’s 2nd Fleet ordered up to 40 ships and submarines based at Hampton Roads, Va., to begin heading out to sea Tuesday in preparation for Hurricane Isabel, he was adhering to a tradition as ancient as seafaring itself.

When bad weather is coming, get as far away from shore as you can and ride it out.

The idea of moving submarines out to sea is easy to understand. Subs are safest deep below the ocean’s turbulent surface, where wind and waves can’t touch them.

But to nonsailors, taking ships out to turbulent open water seems counterintuitive. Anyone who has ever watched the movie “The Perfect Storm” has seen the effect of gale-force winds and the killer waves they produce on even multiton fishing vessel.

So aren’t ships safer in nice, protected harbors like the one at Hampton Roads, where they are tied securely to their special berths?

The answer is no, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Donald Sewell Sr., a Pentagon spokesman and former chief engineer on a frigate, or “small boy,” as the sea service dubs them.

“In a nutshell, you move ships because in a storm, the water comes up to the piers; it has nowhere to go,” Sewell said. “You move the ships [out to sea] to keep from tearing them up and the piers up.”

The Hampton Road ships are going out to sea with their full crews, and heading north and northeast, “to get ahead [of the projected path of the hurricane], and to keep them from getting caught between the East Coast of the United States and the storm,” Lt. Scott McInlay, a spokesman for Atlantic Fleet, said in a Tuesday telephone interview. “They need room to maneuver.”

Once out in the ocean, in a “high sea” — which is what sailors call any seas with waves that are larger than 8 feet — a captain will usually either turn his ship directly into oncoming waves, McInlay said.

“You always have a more stable ride when you’re going into the seas than when they’re hitting your aft [rear end],” he said.

The most dangerous position in high seas is broadside — or “abeam” — to a big wave, which if a wave is large enough, can roll a vessel right over.

“Whenever possible you want to avoid taking abeam seas,” McInlay said.

But not all the ships at Hampton Roads can get out before the storm, because many are in various states of repair after coming back from recent contingencies, McInlay said.

About 23 ships are staying back at Hampton Roads, including the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, which is in the middle of a two-year, major overhaul, and carrier USS Harry Truman, which is also undergoing repair, McInlay said.

Those ships are undergoing as many preparations as possible to keep them safe from tidal surges and high winds — for example, Sewell said, if a tidal surge is on its way in, the lines that secure ships to piers will be lengthened, to allow the ship to rise with the rising water.

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